Charles Henry Alston

§ The Whitney’s “Human Interest: Portraits from the Collection”

Thru February 2017

Before we start, let me say that I often find big exhibitions a bit unnerving and overwhelming. They’re like Chinese restaurant buffets – you leave stuffed, bloated and not remembering what you ate. I started a couple of years ago forcing myself to, in effect, avoid sweet & sour pork, beef with garlic sauce, and the General Tso’s Chicken and stick to a few, strategic dishes. No more browsing and instead more focus. My mantra now: choose a few pieces and sit with them for an extended period. I began with this method at the lovely (and free!) NC Museum of Art  with a Wyeth, a Sergeant, and a Jacob Lawrence that I described here. (Not bad choices!)

3pieces

So without further adieu…..

The Whitney‘s Meatpacking District location is still new when it comes to museums. Its architecture is interesting, the outdoor spaces have fabulous views of the city and beyond, and the exhibit spaces are practical if also pretty forgettable, but that leaves the focus on the art. Its location next to the High Line along with the outdoor platform views makes it a great introduction for the visitor to New York City. And its inventory makes it a natural top-end art venue.

View north to High Line
Whitney-view - 1
View south to new World Trade Center

So Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is basically a must-see simply because of the gems in the collection. Putting my amateur art critic hat on I’d say that the exhibition is very good but not always riveting. Basically I find the schticks they use in the various spaces hit-and-miss. Those spaces that are less thematic are mostly where I found myself spending my time including revisiting a number of pieces. I’m a huge Susan Payton and Alice Neel fan so I focused on the Payton and the two Neel’s. The Barkley Hendricks? Oh yeah. Henry Taylor’s Huey Newton? Ditto. The visually floating men in the board room of Howard Kanovitz New Yorkers1 look like more interesting versions of the characters from the Mad Men.

But there were other pieces that I really looked at. I’ll start with the Joan Semmel piece Touch from 1975. I didn’t know her work. The story of its apparent controversy is quite an eye opener from the perspective of 2016. It’s a erotic view from Semmel herself with her lover pre or post sex. It’s about touch, feeling flesh, and I’m guessing sounds, smells, and the cool feel of sweat drying on her skin. She was trying to create sensual erortic art for women that was explictly political and feminist.

The controversy was less about pushback for eroticism from a female standpoint than about other feminists who attacked Semmel for objectifying women. The story is interesting, but I was stunned by the piece before I knew all that. Basically I found the angle of the bodies gorgeous (and technically beyond my skills!) but it’s so sensual, so rich, that I imagined I could feel the sheets, and hear their breaths slowing. It envelops the viewer and I, at least, felt I real sense of voyeurism as if I was watching through an uncovered window. An amazing immersive experience that is not about objectivitizating but about the transformative joy of human sexual experience.

Joan Semmell Touch from 1975
Joan Semmell Touch from 1975

Next up, Charles Henry Alston and Arshile Gorky…….

Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Charles Henry Alston
Charles Henry Alston